Michael J. Minnaugh, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, likes John McCain very much and has given his state's senior senator some earnest advice: You had better show up here for the Dec. 6 presidential debate or you will lose your own state's primary Feb. 22.

So far, Sen. McCain is not taking Minnaugh's advice. The reason given by his managers is that he is scheduled in New Hampshire Dec. 6. They add that unless McCain beats Texas Gov. George W. Bush in New Hampshire Feb. 1 (which is possible), and in South Carolina Feb. 19 (much more difficult), the senator's campaign will be dead before the Arizona vote. But the underlying reason for declining the debate invitation, it is widely suspected here, is that McCain is sick and tired of manipulation by Bush's managers.

If that is a correct interpretation, it lends credence to McCain's reported tendency toward peevishness. But the senator's real problem is not insidious whispers claiming that over five years in a North Vietnamese prison made him temperamentally unsuited for the presidency. Rather, tortuous negotiations about Arizona debates show how frustrating it is for McCain to deal with the Bush colossus--even when the governor's aides stumble.

There was indeed a miscalculation in the Bush plan so carefully conceived in Austin. The governor's managers, seeking to avoid early mistakes by their rookie presidential candidate, tried to preclude debates or candidate forums in calendar year 1999. That decision was based on a failure to anticipate the shortening of the entire process, with the campaign well underway this autumn.

This was the mind-set that Minnaugh and his aides, officially neutral in the presidential race, faced when they tried to get their state into the big-time, early primary circuit. Meeting with Bush's agents last month, the Arizonans were told flatly there would be no 1999 debates anywhere for Bush. What about January? Even early February? Call us later, was the non-responsive response.

That was before the adverse reaction to Bush's skipping the first two New Hampshire debates, helping to propel McCain to serious contention in the first primary state. Bush's New Hampshire backers were distraught, fearing a McCain victory there. Ending the "not in 1999" stricture, Bush agreed to debate Dec. 2 in Manchester.

But by then the Arizona GOP had scheduled a Nov. 21 debate at Arizona State University. Bush skipped it, and the reason given by a local spokesman last Sunday was ludicrously implausible: He had to be in Bryan, Tex., at a memorial service for the dead in the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy. Of course, Bush's decision was made long before that disaster, and the real reason had been frankly disclosed to state party leaders here: Bush could not afford to offend New Hampshire sensibilities by participating in his first debate anywhere else.

The Bush campaign, however, now made clear it eagerly wanted to debate in Arizona. Asked for possible available dates, Bush operatives selected--and announced--Dec. 6 as if already decided. So cavalier an approach by anybody else would have been rejected, but not the Republican Party's anointed leader.

Handed Dec. 6 as a fait accompli, McCain said no; he was scheduled for important New Hampshire campaign time that day and the next morning and was not about to junk it for George W.'s convenience. In recent meetings, McCain's high command agreed to stand firm. If so, the second Arizona debate will proceed without Arizona's candidate. On Tuesday, McCain asked the Bush campaign for a third Arizona debate "early next year."

For Bush to enjoy preferential treatment in McCain's state is exasperating indeed for the senator. It is nearly as irritating as Gov. Jane Hull's endorsement of Bush and her triggering of national publicity about McCain's temper (arousing immense hilarity here for Republicans who are aware of the governor's volcanic nature).

To say that McCain is a prophet without honor in his state is incorrect. The other six Republicans in the state's congressional delegation have all endorsed him. Arizona's most important conservatives, such as Rep. Matt Salmon, share McCain's concern over special interests dominating American politics, even if they believe that his campaign finance reform is the wrong remedy. But they are powerless to prevent the Bush campaign from getting its way in John McCain's backyard.

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.